No Soul for Sale: Tate Modern's 10th anniversary

Not since Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project installation in 2003 has Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall felt so “occupied” by the masses, so animated, with people taking ownership of the vast space for their own amusement. Of course it is all orchestrated by the mighty institution, but it feels like a fitting tribute to ten years of the Bankside museum to give it over to “the people” and stage a festival.

It’s 6.30pm on Friday night and the place is buzzing. As I enter the mezzanine level, there are three artists, part of London’s Scrawl Collective, painting a large-scale mural directly onto the Turbine Hall’s beige wall. They are serious, silent and studious. In the background I can hear the strains of a heavily amped-up electric guitar and some menacing deep bass sounds. It’s amateur-sounding, but it feels right.

Downstairs, the big ramp is cordoned off as a performance area. The source of the sound appears – a band is warming up for a gig later. I wander through to the exhibition area, where red lines painted onto the floor to delineate the different “stands” (a deliberate reference to the Lars von Trier film Dogville) almost stop me from crossing over them, so conditioned am I by the formalised spaces upstairs with their strict barriers to getting up close and personal with the art. There is no such formality here. My first encounter involves a four-year-old girl purposefully cleaning three black plastic chairs at Sala-Manca & Mamuta from Jerusalem. Is it a Tino Sehgal performance, I wonder, or just the daughter of the stand owner being helpful? Then I see her face on a poster on the wall pulling a funny face. I’m none the wiser. The music’s picking up, building up into some promising high-energy Underworld-style techno. Oh, it’s gone again. I notice a sign for Mame Moderne Salon and discover that you can get your hair cut for free – hopefully not by the little girl. I don’t stick around long enough to find out.

There’s some jumble sale-style bric a brac with a Jerusalem theme at Barbur Bazaar, and at Thisisnotashop from Dublin, a mirror tells me that “Desire is the very essence of man”. Thanks. A crouched woman in bandages breathes slowly into a brown paper bag taped to one side of her face. Her toenails are horribly long. I don’t know what I’m looking at, and once again I’m not sure I want to find out. At Kling & Bang from Reykjavik, narrow strips of white plastic hang all the way from the vastly high Turbine ceiling – I’d never realised quite how high it was until I looked up just then, but then I’m reminded of Louise Bourgeois’ giant towers that filled the hall when Tate Modern opened in 2000, and I get a pleasing sense of history, of occasion, and that, after all, is why I’m here.

The busiest stand is the Oregon Painting Society from Portland, where plants have been amped up to create sounds when touched or squeezed. The kids love it. A Mighty Boosh-style character with his head and one leg entirely covered in seaweed is “playing” the hand of a girl who is clutching one of the plants and chuckling. I pick up a free publication at the neighbouring Swiss Institute. It’s called “Speaking of Destruction” and the first contributor is the doyen of auto-destructive art, Gustav Metzger. Aptly I later see him, browsing leaflets, the ultimate soul not for sale.

It strikes me that this whole event is a bit like a cross between the independent publishing fair Publish and Be Damned and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s annual “Village Fete”, a creative jamboree with a distinct funfair feel. And that is why No Soul for Sale is thankfully nothing like an art fair, or even a biennial. Rather it’s a haphazard mish-mash of performative creativity, at times baffling, at times amusing, but always, in some way, engaging.

This article was published in Domus magazine, 18 May 2010. To view it in context, go to www.domusweb.it/art/article.cfm?id=250220